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American Scientists and Calculating Machines From Novelty to Commonplace

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129632D
Original Publication Date: 1990-Dec-31
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-06
Document File: 11 page(s) / 49K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

PEGGY ALDRICH KIDWELL: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

Over the period 1865-1920, individual fascination with new commercial computing devices transformed the reduction of scientific data in the United States. At Columbia University, arithmometers and Brunsviga calculating machines, purchased as novelties, were put to use by astronomers. At the New York Meteorological Observatory, comptometers offered a new way to average large numbers of records. By 1914, calculating machines like the Millionaire were an accepted tool at institutions like the National Bureau of Standards. Surviving artifacts and manuscripts from each of these institutions suggest how American scientists came to reckon by machine.

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

Copyright ©; 1990 by the American Federation of Information Processing Societies, Inc. Used with permission.

American Scientists and Calculating Machines From Novelty to Commonplace

PEGGY ALDRICH KIDWELL

(Image Omitted: Authors Address: Room 5128, NMAH; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.)

Over the period 1865-1920, individual fascination with new commercial computing devices transformed the reduction of scientific data in the United States. At Columbia University, arithmometers and Brunsviga calculating machines, purchased as novelties, were put to use by astronomers. At the New York Meteorological Observatory, comptometers offered a new way to average large numbers of records. By 1914, calculating machines like the Millionaire were an accepted tool at institutions like the National Bureau of Standards. Surviving artifacts and manuscripts from each of these institutions suggest how American scientists came to reckon by machine.

Categories and Subject Descriptors: K.2 [Computing Milieux]: History of Computing -- hardware, people; calculating machines

General Terms -- Design.

Additional Terms -- Arithmometers, Millionaire, Comptometer, Harmonic Analyzer.

In the century after Charles Xavier Thomas of Colmar invented the arithmometer in 1820, adding and calculating machines became standard equipment, not only in businesses and government offices, but in laboratories and observatories in both the United States and Europe. Scientists and engineers, along with actuaries, bookkeepers and civil servants, came to reckon by machine, not by hand.l1

Historians of computing have described technical innovations that fostered the development of adding machines, calculating machines, and difference engines in the nineteenth century. These accounts tend to emphasize machines that foreshadowed the general purpose computer, whether they were used or indeed actually built. For example, one reads far more about the plans of Charles Babbage and the machines of Georg Scheutz than about such inventors of commercial machines as Thomas, Dorr E. Felt and Otto Steiger. Yet Babbage's engines were never completed, and Scheutz's difference engines may be counted on one hand. To understand how computing devices became part of the world of science, it is useful to look at simpler machines that sold in much larger numbers.

An examination of the use of calculating machines by scientists at three American institutions offers one step toward this fuller understanding. At Columbia College in New York City, Thomas arithmometers were a novelty in the 1, 60s and 1870s, and Brunsviga calculating machines became a standard tool of astronomers in the 1890s. At the city-funded New York Meteorological Observatory, Daniel Draper tried out a wide range of American devices and, in

1 1 Evidence for the diffusion of calculating machines in commerce and government comes from trade literature for machines...